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Students, faculty provide support to ailing professor

November 8, 2007

Room 163 in the Agricultural Engineering Annex on the UW-River Falls campus has had its door locked since early October.

That is because the faculty member who uses the room as an office is battling an aggressive form of leukemia.

United Hospital in St. Paul has become a temporary home for Kamal Adam, assistant professor of agricultural engineering technology. While the Sudanese native undergoes rounds of chemotherapy, he holds onto the hope of receiving the bone marrow transplant that will save his life. However, that is easier said than done. The people that are capable of providing Adam with this vital tissue—his father and siblings—are not in the United States.

Faculty and students in the agricultural engineering technology department said they were stunned by Adam’s sudden diagnosis. What the assistant professor had originally thought was strep throat, they said, turned out to be something far worse.

“Pure shock,” said Dean Olson, department chair, of his reaction. “He’s the picture of perfect health, no indication that he was sick.”

Sophomore Sam Vorpahl, who has taken a class with Adam, said he had a similar response.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t understand what was wrong exactly and was definitely concerned.”

Instead of grieving, Adam’s plight has caused the University to spring into action. Chancellor Don Betz and Dean Gallenberg, College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences dean, have written letters of support to the offices of Wisconsin legislators Ron Kind and Russell Feingold asking for their help in securing expedited visas for Adam’s family.

Lisa Owens, CAFES dean’s assistant, said that both Kind and Feingold have pledged their support.

“They’re going to do everything they can to help,” she said.

CAFES faculty and staff have organized a meal delivery pool for Adam’s wife Salma and their three children. The family has also received a promise from the Agricultural Mechanics Club, which Adam advised before his diagnosis, that the driveway to their home will be plowed on a regular basis by student members.

Olson said he hopes these actions help to reassure Adam that his loved ones are in good hands.

“Hopefully we can give him peace of mind that the family life back here is being taken care of,” he said.

Some of Adam’s students have shown their support by making the trek to United Hospital to visit their ailing professor.

Junior Joel Dernovsek said he visited Adam with his friends.

“A group of friends [and I] decided to go to the hospital because we heard that he was not doing well, and that most of his family was not around so he would really like the company,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Dernovsek said that he noted an immediate change in Adam’s demeanor during the visit.

“When we entered the room, he seemed to get more life into him,” he said. “The more and more we talked to him, the better he seemed to feel. It seems as if we really brightened his mood.”

Vorpahl also visited and said that he was shocked at Adam’s weight loss. Adam had a “frail and thin-looking” appearance, he said.

“That’s significant for him because he was a small guy to begin with,” Vorpahl said. “It was hard to see him that way.”

He said that his visit with Adam, although subdued, was well worth the fifty-mile round trip.

“I could tell he was happy to see me,” he said. “He had good spirits for the condition that he was in.”

The rush of CAFES faculty and staff to Adam’s aid comes with the territory of the college, Olson said.

`“It’s just the way we are down here,” Olson said of CAFES. “I think we’re a very close-knit college.  It’s almost like a family member gets down where you have an illness like this.”

At this time, Adam is still anticipating a transplant as his family members do not match his bone marrow. Currently, he is in the process of transferring to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.